We do our best to keep our collective ear to the ground so that we stay abreast of what's happening in composites around the world. In light of that, we've been watching the automotive sector's progress in developing high performance carbon fiber wheels. Needless to say there are some very creative manufacturers doing great things.
Just last year we witnessed the introduction of some pretty impressive all-carbon-fiber wheels designed for performance cars. As fantastic as these wheels are, they are also incredibly expensive. A set of four wheels could run you more than a decent compact car straight off the assembly line. Their high price tag makes them impractical for the average car buyer.
So, are automakers standing pat? No, they are actually looking for ways to make carbon fiber wheels cheaper. A recent trend is to combine carbon fiber with aluminum or titanium. When aluminum is the choice, the cost comes way down.
STRENGTH AND WEIGHT ISSUES
If you follow our blog, you know that the auto industry's interest in carbon fiber is rooted in a desire to reduce weight while still making cars stronger. The race to develop the first 100% electric vehicle (EV) with reasonable range and an affordable price tag is an impetus here. To reach their goals, car companies have to bring down weight.
Carbon fiber gives them what they want. However, it is expensive to work with. Virgin carbon fiber is expensive to produce thanks the amount of energy it consumes. Taking that virgin carbon fiber and turning it into something like a car wheel only adds to the expense.
To get around that expense, at least one wheel manufacturer has come up with a design that combines aluminum and carbon fiber. Aluminum is the material of choice for the core of the wheel. Over the top of that core is a carbon fiber piece that acts as the rim for the tire. It provides most of the visual seen from the exterior.
The two parts are bolted together to create a single piece. Although the hybrid wheel is not as light as an all-carbon-fiber wheel, it is still significantly lighter than a 100% aluminum wheel. It is also cheaper to produce than a wheel made completely from carbon fiber.
STILL FOR PERFORMANCE CARS
These new hybrid wheels are still intended primarily for performance cars. However, developing them is a step in the right direction toward producing a lighter but stronger wheel for mainline production. It is reasonable to assume that carmakers are heading down that road.
Making the hybrid wheels possible is the recent developments in additive manufacturing. In the composites arena, additive manufacturing is just a fancy term for 3D printing. The best 3D printing technologies we now have are capable of producing a full range of parts that would be nearly impossible relying on manual layup procedures. It is 3D printing that makes it possible to create a car wheel.
Additive manufacturing is still expensive, but costs are coming down as printers are improving. The goal now is to scale up so as to allow composite parts to be printed as quickly and as cheaply as aluminum parts made in a foundry.
If you are looking to spice up your car with a new set of wheels, you can buy carbon fiber-aluminum hybrids for some performance cars from Ford, Porsche, and a few others. All indications seem to point to the wheels being available for a larger number of production cars within the next year or two. We will see.
Autoblog – https://www.autoblog.com/2019/08/08/forgeline-dymag-carbon-fiber-aluminum-wheels/
Autoblog – https://www.autoblog.com/2019/05/23/hre-3d-printed-titanium-wheel-video/